Th. Rothstein 1908

The “Short and Simple” Non-Conformist Bill

Source: Justice, 7 March 1908, p. 6
Transcribed: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

It is now just over a hundred years since Whitbread’s Bill turned loose upon the field of national education the two contending religious Sects, and we undertake to predict that the “short and simple” Bill of the present Minister of Education will not end the squabbles which have been going on since 1807 (1870? Transcriber) It is the same effort over again to square the circle, that is, “to trim the balance,” as the “Edinburgh Review” wrote as far back as 1833, “between the friends of the Establishment, and the dissenting interest,” which shipwrecked an educational efforts right up to the year 1870 and has since then rendered the people’s school a stake in the game of battledore and shuttlcock between these two sets of meek followers of Christ. It is quite possible, as was pointed out in these columns last week, that by having secured it against the House f Lords by a financial armour, and relying upon its big majority, the Government may succeed in bringing its ship safe to port. It is another question whether it will long remain, there, as the Tories, when they came to power again, will be sure to eject it and bring in another ship in its place. And why should they not? The present Bill is an attempt to revert to the exclusive State endowment of Nonconformist Christianity, which was abolished in 1902, and if it succeeds it will only be too natural for the Tories to place the Church again on an equal footing with Dissent, so far as influence in the schools is concerned.

For—and this, in spite of the screeching and screaming of the Non-conformists, must always be remembered—the Education Act of 1902 was, apart from the reactionary character of its provisions as regards administration, essentially an act of restitution to the Church of what had been take away from it by the Act of 1870. Forster’s Act was a distinct victory for nonconformity, inasmuch as the latter’s tenets were henceforth taught at the public expense while the Church had to inculcate its dogmas as best it could with only the assistance of Parliamentary grants and at the expense of its devotees. The very principles of democracy, introduced by the Act of 1870 in the election of the School Boards, were originally intended to serve the interests of the chapel as against the Church. It stands on record that the demand for an educational authority ad hoc, which the Nonconformists raised as against Forster’s scheme for indirectly elected bodies, was originally put forward by them only in the case of country districts, where they had reason to fear that the select vestries, which were to appoint the School Boards, would be entirely under the thumb of the squire and the parson. In fact, when Sir Charles Dilke moved in the House that the direct system of elections to the School Boards should be made universal, most of the Nonconformist leaders voted against it. Similarly, when the adherents of the Church, in order to gain some chance of access to the School Boards in the town districts, demanded the introduction of the cumulative vote, the Nonconformists fought the proposal tooth and nail and sat up the whole night obstructing it. Lastly, the principle of the secret ballot was only advocated by the Nonconformists in the hope that it might give them some advantage in the country districts. On the whole, the Act of 1870 worked admirably in the interests of Nonconformity, as can be seen from the simple fact that between 1870 and 1902 the number of their schools had been steadily decreasing side by side with the extension of the Board schools, while the Anglican schools had not only to be maintained at their original level, but actually to be multiplied in order to prevent the formation of School Boards, which meant Nonconformist propaganda.

From this point of view what was the Education Act of 1902 but an Act of equalisation of the Church in her rights with Dissent? Nonconformist Christianity was not in the least expelled from its strongholds in the late Board schools, only Anglican Christianity was given a chance of propagating its tenets in its own schools at public expense. Was it unfair to Dissenters? Not in the slightest. Yet we all remember the screeching and the screaming of the Nonconformist conscience, the passive resistance propaganda, the mock-sales of distrained goods, and all the other paraphernalia of a sectarian campaign. After having compelled the Anglican ratepayer to pay for over thirty years in support of undenominational Christianity in the Board schools, Dissent suddenly discovered a ratepayer’s conscience which forbids the supporting of disagreeable religious teaching, at the same time wisely discriminating between this and the taxpayer’s conscience, on which they themselves had traded by accepting Parliamentary grants between 1839 and 1870.

And now they are taking their revenge. The present Education Bill amounts to a return to the status quo ante 1870 so far as the Anglican and Catholic schools are concerned, but extending the privileges of Dissent still further by making undenominational Christianity the universal form of religious teaching in all rate-supported schools, irrespective of whether there are denominational schools in the district or not. Without any partiality for one form of humbug or the other, we are compelled to acknowledge that no such brazen effrontery has ever been attempted by the Tories. And as we said at the beginning, we have no doubt that if this Bill is carried, the balance will so much be inclined on the side of the Nonconformists that the Tories will be more than human if they do not restore it once more when they return to power.

Under these circumstances we can only hope that, the Labour members in Parliament will make a better fight for the only solution of this eternal rivalry between the two sects, that is, for secular education, than they have made hitherto.) The two sects have so long and so much insisted (taking good care, however, throughout the hundred years not to arrive at the precise facts by means of a plebiscite and such like) that the British parent would not accept the secular solution, that our Labour members, we are afraid, have themselves caught the humbug, like some infectious disease, and scarcely venture to advocate the view of their constituents, as expressed at the Trades Union Congresses and Labour Party Conferences, in any more determined fashion than is done by same even of the young Liberals. So much more is the pity, because apart him the purely educational aspects of this wretched religious wrangle, which should themselves have proved sufficiently important to prompt the representatives of the working class to energetic action, it is the minds of the children of the proletariat which are the stake in the unseemly game the two Christian bodies are playing. Each of them regards itself as more capable of filling the minds of the little proletarian children with that sense of Christian meekness which is so valuable to the ruling class, and on that ground chiefly they ought to be combatted and made to withdraw from a field which is not theirs.